When the Emperor was Divine

Pdf fan Tap here to download this LitChart! (PDF)

The Japanese Emperor Symbol Analysis

The Japanese Emperor  Symbol Icon

Appearing in the title of the book, Emperor Hirohito plays a crucial symbolic role for the boy. In the Japanese culture of the time, the Emperor was considered divine like a god. However, at the end of World War II, the U.S. government required Emperor Hirohito to repudiate his divinity and declare himself human. In the context of this novel, the Emperor’s past divinity represents a time before the war, when the people of Japan had their national pride and their right to self-determination. For the boy, then, the Emperor and his divinity is a symbol for national pride and Japanese cultural identity. As an act of resistance, the boy repeats the name of the Emperor under his breath at the camp, proving to himself that he will not give up his heritage.

The Emperor’s change from the divine to the human also represents the shift the boy goes through in the camp. Before the camp, the boy’s life is full of wonder, imagination, and mystery, but the brutal reality of life at the camp slowly chips away at this imaginative spirit. Thus, we can understand the title of the novel as referring to a pre-war time of (relative) innocence and Japanese national pride, rather than the postwar time of jadedness and submission. For the boy, the loss of the magic and wonder of the world culminates when the Emperor is no longer divine.

The Japanese Emperor Quotes in When the Emperor was Divine

The When the Emperor was Divine quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Japanese Emperor . For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Racism Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Anchor Books edition of When the Emperor was Divine published in 2003.
Chapter 3 Quotes

Whenever the boy walked past the shadow of a guard tower he pulled his cap down low over his head and tried not to say the word. But sometimes it slipped out anyway, Hirohito, Hirohito, Hirohito. He said it quietly. Quickly. He whispered it.

Related Characters: The Boy , Emperor Hirohito
Related Symbols: The Japanese Emperor
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Boy passes by some of the American guards who run the camp--he's walking by the huge guard tower that looks down on the Japanese-American camp residents. In spite of the fact that he's so close to Americans, the Boy mutters the name "Hirohito" to himself--the name of the Japanese Emperor, considered a divine presence. Hirohito was the Emperor during World War II, and he was popular even among Japanese-Americans. Thus, for the Boy to mutter Hirohito's name is a quiet act of rebellion: he's naming the spiritual leader of America's enemy, and he's showing his allegiance with Japanese culture. The Boy is frightened of the guards, but he finds tiny ways to rebel against their authority and retain his dignity and culture in an environment of racism and dehumanization.

A+

Unlock explanations and citation info for this and every other When the Emperor was Divine quote.

Plus so much more...

Get LitCharts A+
Already a LitCharts A+ member? Sign in!

In the dream there was always a beautiful wooden door. The beautiful wooden door was very small—the size of a pillow, say, or an encyclopedia. Behind the small but beautiful wooden door there was a second door, and behind the second door there was a picture of the Emperor, which no one was allowed to see. For the Emperor was holy and divine. A god.

Related Characters: The Boy , Emperor Hirohito
Related Symbols: The Japanese Emperor
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Boy has a recurring dream about the Emperor of Japan, Hirohito. Hirohito is a clear symbol of the Boy's Japanese heritage, in all its strengths and weaknesses. The fact that the Boy can only access his Japanese heritage in dreams is a sad reminder of his present situation: he lives in camps where Japanese culture of any kind is frowned upon and even considered treacherous.

The Boy's dreams suggest that he acutely feels the struggle between his American citizenship and his Japanese heritage. Americans have thrown him in a camp under the delusion that he's a danger to the country, and yet the Boy is clearly pretty ignorant of Japanese culture; he has only the vaguest idea who the Emperor is or what he symbolizes (if the Boy knew a little more about Hirohito's life, he might not like him so much). In short, the passage sums up the ironies of the internment program: the American soldiers were guarding the Japanese people who were least likely to feel any strong connection with Japan, or be traitorous to America in any substantive way.

Get the entire Emperor was Divine LitChart as a printable PDF.
When the emperor was divine.pdf.medium

The Japanese Emperor Symbol Timeline in When the Emperor was Divine

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Japanese Emperor appears in When the Emperor was Divine. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 3: When The Emperor Was Divine
Racism Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
...his mother tells him to never touch the fences, and to never to say the Emperor’s name aloud. In defiance of his mother’s warning, the boy sometimes walks past the guard... (full context)
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
Inscrutability and the Unknown  Theme Icon
...there is another door, and behind the second door there is a picture of the Emperor. No one was allowed to see the picture because the Emperor was divine, a god.... (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
...Japan, the kimonos, and photographs of their uncle who had been a general in the Emperor’s army. She burned the Japanese flag and the records of Japanese opera. For the children’s... (full context)
Chapter 4: In a Stranger’s Backyard
Racism Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
...house. Or maybe he is thinking of the headline in the newspaper he’s reading: “Jap Emperor Repudiates His own Divinity!” (full context)